Zephyr launch and landing video.

QinetiQ has filed for three world records for Zephyr, its solar powered high-altitude long endurance (HALE) Unmanned Air System (UAS), with the Federation

Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), subject to ratification for achieving:

Absolute duration record for an Unmanned Air Vehicle – being filed at 336 hrs / 22 minutes

Duration record for a UAV (in the U/1.c / 50-500Kg category) – time as above

Absolute altitude record for a UAV (in the above category) – being filed at 70,740ft (21,561m)

Zephyr was launched at 06:41 (MST) on 09 July 2010 and stayed aloft for 14 nights (336 hrs / 22 minutes) above the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, before being brought safely back to earth on the morning of 23 July having achieving all the objectives of the trial.

An official from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the world air sports federation, monitored every aspect of Zephyr’s progress at the Yuma Proving Ground from launch to safe landing. “We now await official FAI confirmation that we have met all necessary criteria,” stated Jon Saltmarsh, Zephyr Programme Director. “This is a tremendous achievement, earning Zephyr a well deserved place in the record books and setting a significant milestone in aviation history.”

Easy to transport in a standard road transport container, once launched, Zephyr can remain above a general area for weeks, if not months, at a time delivering vital capability at a fraction of the cost of satellites and significantly more cost effectively than other ‘conventionally powered’ manned or unmanned aircraft. Zephyr also does not need to return to base at regular intervals for re-fuelling or servicing which helps minimise the logistical supply chain, extending its operational capability and appeal. Its zero emissions also make it exceptionally environmentally friendly.

During the Yuma trial, Zephyr carried a communications payload configured to meet the needs of the UK Ministry of Defence. In addition to the obvious defence and security applications, commercial uses include environmental research; monitoring crops and pollution; providing tactical intelligence over disaster zones or forest fires; plus delivering mobile communications capabilities in remote areas.

Chris Kelleher, QinetiQ’s chief designer added: “We’re delighted that Zephyr should soon enter the world record books as it is set to transform the delivery of current services such as communications, and lead to many new applications which are not possible or affordable by other means. We’ve now proved that this world-beating aircraft is capable of providing a cost effective, persistent surveillance and communications capability measured in terms of weeks, if not months.”

Launched by hand, the aircraft flies by day on solar power delivered by amorphous silicon solar arrays that cover the aircraft’s wings and are no thicker than sheets of paper. These are supplied by Uni-Solar, the world’s largest producer of flexible solar panels. The solar arrays are also used to recharge the lithium-sulfur batteries that are used to power the aircraft by night and supplied by Sion Power Inc, a leading developer of the next high energy rechargeable battery technology. Together they provide an extremely high power to weight ratio on a continuous day/night cycle, thereby delivering persistent on station capabilities.

Around 50% larger than the previous version, Zephyr incorporates an entirely new wing design with a total wingspan of 22.5m to accommodate more batteries that are combined with a totally new integrated power management system. The entirely new aerodynamic shape also helps to reduce drag and improve performance. Zephyr’s ultra-lightweight carbon fibre design means it weighs in at just over 50Kg.

Previous records beaten include:

Surpassing the previous world record for the longest flight for an unmanned air system (set at 30 hours 24 minutes by Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4A Global Hawk on 22 March 2001).

Surpassing the Rutan Voyager milestone of 9 days (216hours) 3 minutes and 44 seconds airborne – previously the longest flight by an aeroplane without refuelling and set in Dec 1986. Quadrupling its own unofficial duration record of 82 hours, 37 minutes set in 2008

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Gary Mortimer

Founder and Editor of sUAS News | Gary Mortimer has been a commercial balloon pilot for 25 years and also flies full-size helicopters. Prior to that, he made tea and coffee in air traffic control towers across the UK as a member of the Royal Air Force.